No peace in national immigration debate

Aug 24, 2011 Issues: Border Security

Newsday – by Dan Janison

Two and a half years since President Barack Obama took office, a few things have become clear about illegal immigration.

For one, it is clear this issue will remain viscerally divisive -- as have abortion, Social Security and the death penalty. No sweeping legislative agreements can be seen anywhere on the Washington horizon. Last time out, when President George W. Bush promoted an immigration reform bill, dire denunciations arose from within the Republican Party. That proved to be the end of that, no matter what anybody promised anybody else during the last campaign.

In other words, it has become crystal clear that Congress won't clarify anything -- at the very least, until after next year's presidential race.b

How the White House and the federal bureaucracy enforce the current laws becomes the arena of tension between "kick-em-out" activists and "let-'em-be" activists, and between hold-the-line law enforcers and civil liberties defenders.

Under Obama, deportations have spiked. This much became clear one year ago, when homeland-security officials reported that about 400,000 people would be deported during the fiscal year. That's 10 percent above the Bush administration total for 2008 and 25 percent above the total for 2007.

Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would suspend New York's participation in the program called Secure Communities -- under which the fingerprints of anyone booked in a local or county jail go to the Department of Homeland Security for comparison with its database. The result can be deportation if the person arrested is in the country illegally or is a noncitizen with a criminal record.

What impact Cuomo's action -- like that of his counterparts in Illinois and Massachusetts, which did the same -- will have on the federal approach remains unclear, since the program continues. Cuomo said in his statement that "there are concerns about . . . the program's impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York."

But top federal officials under Obama have called the program a "common-sense way" to carry out the priority of removing "criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety and repeat immigration violators."

Last week came a new bend in the rutted road. Homeland Security and Justice Department officials began what they said was a review of hundreds of thousands of deportation cases now in court. They said they'll move to suspend deportations of those not convicted of crimes in order, again, to "prioritize" response to the true threats. The White House move prompted a chorus of complaints from Republican leaders, including Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).

Locally, Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, campaign director for the immigration-rights group Long Island WINS, said: "I think we're all looking at this with a cautious eye. We don't yet know entire scope of it."

She said the new review of deportations may be a "deflection" by the federal government as it carries on with the Secure Communities program despite criticisms.

Reality on this issue will remain double-layered through this year and next. There will be slogans and posturing from the political campaigns. Meanwhile, a morass of case-by-case machinations will grind on in government offices. The "kick-'em-outs" and the "let-'em-bes" won't likely find peace in Washington, not for the foreseeable future.